Tuesday, January 14, 2014

'Poor Farms': On the historical conflation of poverty and criminality

At County magazine, Liz Carmack recently had a fascinating piece (Nov. 8) on "poor farms" in Texas, which for decades doubled as support systems for the indigent and punishment systems for low-level offenders. In Kaufman County, remarkably, the last residents didn't leave the poor farm until the 1970s.
Since then, the county has repurposed much of the land for other uses — the county’s library, emergency children’s shelter, appraisal district offices and courthouse annex. But Kaufman County kept the core 27 acres of the farm intact with what remain of its 19th and 20th century buildings, including residents’ living quarters, the farm superintendent’s house, barns, a silo, a well and pump house, a chapel, a jail, a hen house and several pieces of farming equipment. 

The poor farm received a Texas Historical Commission Subject Marker in 1997, which the Kaufman County Historical Commission dedicated a year later. Today, the site is one of the few county-owned poor farms in Texas.
The story offered up some history of which I was personally unaware:
Poor Farm Cemetery, Hallettsville, TX (source)
The hardships of the Civil War and concurrent demise of charitable organizations that served the indigent left many more needy Texans at war’s end. To help them, an 1869 addendum to the Texas Constitution charged the state’s counties with providing a Manual Labor Poor House “for taking care of, managing, employing and supplying the wants of its indigent and poor inhabitants.” It also specified that “all persons committing petty offences in the county may be committed to such Manual Labor Poor House, for correction and employment.”
Several Texas counties established poor farms as an efficient way to aid their indigent residents, who would live and work on the farms to support themselves. County inmates often worked off their sentences on the farms and were jailed there as well. 

A 1987 Texas Historical Commission Survey of county clerks revealed that at least 65 of the state’s 254 counties at one time had poor farms. According to the survey, most were in the state’s central, northern and eastern counties.
Fascinating the way "poor" and "criminal" were conflated back in the day, a notion that dated from 17th century "poor laws" in Elizabethan England. Outside of convicts, most poor farm residents were elderly and white. (With few exceptions, "Mexicans and blacks were simply told that they were not eligible for relief and would have to find assistance elsewhere," according to one historical account.) Poor farms were also used to house the infected during contagious epidemics. The flood of poor folk during the Great Depression and the enactment of national and state-level supports for the indigent elderly rendered poor farms either obsolete or mainly work farms for county jail inmates after the 1930s. A dark, grim history indeed. Amazing that the one in Kaufman County continued to operate into the 1970s.

See more detail from the Kaufman County Historical Commission. See also "The County Poor House System in Texas" from the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 93, July 1989 - April, 1990, and this website devoted to the topic.


Anonymous said...

Good job of race baiting.

Gritsforbreakfast said...


History exists. Should we ignore it because it's not politically correct?

ckikerintulia said...

As a child of the depression/dust bowl, I can remember that my father had a fear of losing our farm and home and being relegated to the "poor farm." As there were no poor farms nearby, I think he was probably using the term symbolically. This is the first article I've ever seen about poor farms. Interesting. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

The first known person to have been executed as a witch in the US was Alice Young at Hartford, Connecticut in 1647, just 19 years after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Our history is full of evil.